“Look up here, I’m in heaven.”
On the morning of the 9th December 1980, my Mum woke me up for school, just as she usually did. It was a normal morning, except for the fact that she was crying. When I asked her why, she told me that it was because John Lennon had been gunned down in New York City. I didn’t really understand why she was so devastated. Some time later, I realised that she had lost the primary creator of the soundtrack of her life.
Let’s rewind, to circa 1972 or thereabouts. I’m about nine years old and utterly fascinated by what I’m seeing on Top Of The Pops. There’s a skinny guy with dyed red hair, make up and painted nails, wearing a skintight catsuit. I’m enthralled. My Dad, typical West of Scotland guy, is horrified.
Fast forward to the late 70’s. As well as trying to listen to as much punk/new wave as possible, usually via badly recorded cassettes, my musical taste is dominated by one artist and three of his albums. They are Station to Station, Heroes and Low.
Fast forward again, this time to Christmas 1980. There’s a girl I really fancy, but I’m sure she doesn’t even know I exist. I have virtually given up hope. On Christmas Eve, to my utter shock and embarrassment, she tracks me down with a Christmas present for me. It happens to be an album, specifically Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). I had never spoken to her about Bowie. We never got together, but I do still have that copy of the album.
So, musically speaking, David Bowie played a pretty big role in my life. He was always there. I confess, I wasn’t always faithful to him. Throughout the years following Scary Monsters, I lost faith in his ability to deliver relevant music. There were flashes of brilliance of course, on both Outside and Earthling, but the glory days seemed a long time ago.
Then he got sick and effectively retired. He consciously hid from the public gaze and stopped making music. Rumours continually abounded about his health. Then, without warning, new material was released. Just like that. No announcements, no PR. And it was good. Yes, The Next Day was a strong Bowie album, probably his strongest since Scary Monsters.
So, on 8th January 2016, when his next album, Blackstar, was released, I was first in line to buy it. The first thing I did when I got home from work was to put it on the turntable. I listened to the music and marvelled at the gorgeous artwork. The title track was strange, even by Bowie’s standards. But it was magnificent, all ten minutes of it. It was as good as anything Bowie had recorded for decades. I had no idea what the crazy lyrics meant. But it was Bowie. That ambiguity and opacity was standard.
As it continued, it was obvious that this album was special. It was heavily jazz themed, no doubt influenced by the presence of Donny McCaslin and his superb band. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore is sonic chaos, but at the same time uplifting and joyous. Sue sounds as though it has fallen off the back of King of Limbs, Radiohead’s electro-jazz influenced album of five years earlier.
Dollar Days is more straightforward, more conventional. In fact, it’s the ‘straightest’ track on the album. But it is truly beautiful and incredibly moving. The same could be said of Lazarus, where we have yet another heartwrenchingly gorgeous vocal performance as Bowie sings “look up here, I’m in heaven” over McCaslin’s mournful sax. Those lyrics were to become incredibly relevant.
The album closes in a typically cryptic fashion, as Bowie reminds us that “I Can’t Give Everything Away”. Of course he can’t, we need to keep on guessing. Just as it always was.
I listened to Blackstar all that weekend. Relentlessly. I loved it immediately.
On Monday the 11th January 2016, the radio woke me up for work. In those moments of half-awake/half-asleep, I was conscious that they were discussing David Bowie. But there was something about Shaun Keaveney’s voice that told me they weren’t chatting about the new album. Seconds later, the news sunk in. I now understood how my Mum felt thirty-five and a bit years earlier.
I have chosen Blackstar as my album of the decade because it is a quite wonderful body of work. It’s an astonishing way for the most influential artist of a generation to say goodbye. And perhaps nostalgia and sentimentality have influenced my decision in some way. But I’m making no apologies for that. After all, the man wrote the soundtrack of my life.